What is happiness?

When talking about young people, their problems are often highlighted, problems caused by the pandemic, loneliness, addiction to social media, difficulty living within their community, and so on. All of this is compounded by an external environment in which the issues of environmental destruction, wars, and the pandemic are among the most talked about. Little is said, on the other hand, about happiness, which seems to detect a way of living one’s daily life in a superficial way, too individualistic and outside the difficulties in which many feel immersed without knowing or having the strength to find solutions. It is equally true that at school, in the world of work and often even in families, there is no talk about woundedness and what practical experiences they could put in place to begin to feel happy.

Adults often have no idea what it means to be happy either, so how can they teach young people to be happy. It is easier to think that nothing can be done about it or that one can be happy only if … (and here everyone can complete the sentence as they see fit).

In psychology, on the other hand, there are experts who have studied about happiness, explaining its meaning and how it can be achieved. In this regard I report what has been expressed by those who have studied in their professional lives what happiness is. Understanding it and identifying what promotes it can be a stimulus for those who would like to set out on the road to being happy, notwithstanding the obvious trials that life presents.

Martin E. P. Seligman, Randal M. Ernst, Jane Gillham, Karen Reivich & Mark Linkins (2009) Positive education: positive psychology and classroom interventions, Oxford Review of Education, 35:3, 293-311.

‘Happiness’ is too worn and too weary a term to be of much scientific use, and the discipline of Positive Psychology divides it into three very different realms, each of which is measurable and, most importantly, each of which is skill-based and can be taught (Seligman, 2002).

The first is hedonic: positive emotion (joy, love, contentment, pleasure etc.). A life led around having as much of this good stuff as possible, is the ‘Pleasant Life’.

The second, much closer to what Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle sought, is the state of flow, and a life led around it is the ‘Engaged Life’. Flow, a major part of the Engaged Life, consists in a loss of self-consciousness, time stopping for you, being ‘one with the music’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Importantly engagement seems to be the opposite of positive emotion: when one is totally absorbed, no thoughts or feelings are present—even though one says afterwards ‘that was fun’ (Delle Fave & Massimini, 2005). And while there are shortcuts to positive emotion—you can take drugs, masturbate, watch television, or go shopping—there are no shortcuts to flow. Flow only occurs when you deploy your highest strengths and talents to meet the challenges that come your way, and it is clear that flow facilitates learning.

The third realm in the framework of Positive Psychology is the one with the best intellectual provenance, the Meaningful Life. Flow and positive emotion can be found in solipsistic pursuits, but not meaning or purpose. Meaning is increased through our connections to others, future generations, or causes that transcend the self (Durkheim, 1951/1897; Erikson, 1963). From a Positive Psychology perspective, meaning consists in knowing what your highest strengths are, and then using them to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self (Seligman, 2002).

The framework of Positive Psychology, we want to emphasise, is an empirical research endeavour and not mere grandmotherly common sense. Among its more surprising recent findings:

  • Optimistic people are much less likely to die of heart attacks than pessimists, controlling for all known physical risk factors (Giltay et al., 2004).
  • Women who display genuine (Duchenne) smiles to the photographer at age eighteen go on to have fewer divorces and more marital satisfaction than those who display fake smiles (Keltner et al., 1999).
  • Positive emotion reduces at least some racial biases. For example, although people generally are better at recognising faces of their own race than faces of other races, putting people in a joyful mood reduces this discrepancy by improving memory for faces of people from other races (Johnson & Fredrickson, 2005).
  • Externalities (e.g., weather, money, health, marriage, religion) added together account for no more than 15% of the variance in life satisfaction (Diener et al., 1999).
  • The pursuit of meaning and engagement are much more predictive of life satisfac- tion than the pursuit of pleasure (Peterson et al., 2005).
  • Economically flourishing corporate teams have a ratio of at least 2.9:1 of positive statements to negative statements in business meetings, whereas stagnating teams have a much lower ratio; flourishing marriages, however, require a ratio of at least 5:1 (Gottman & Levenson, 1999; Fredrickson & Losada, 2005).
  • Self-discipline is twice as good a predictor of high school grades as IQ (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005).
  • Happy teenagers go on to earn very substantially more income 15 years later than less happy teenagers, equating for income, grades and other obvious factors (Diener et al., 2002).
  • How people celebrate good events that happen to their spouse is a better predictor of future love and commitment than how they respond to bad events (Gable et al., 2004).
So there is a growing scientific basis for understanding positive emotion, engagement and meaning. These states are valuable in their own right, they fight depression (Seligman et al., 2005), they engender more life satisfaction (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005; Seligman et al., 2005), and they promote learning, particularly creative learning (Fredrickson, 1998).

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